As you travel from Bikaner to the towns of Sri Ganganagar or Hanumangarh around 250 kms away, the monotonous landscape of the endless stretch of the Thar transforms dramatically. The dry desert , interspersed with Khejdi or Babul trees gives way, to stretches of lush rice paddy fields. Yes paddy in a desert!
The visionary ruler of Bikaner, Maharaja Ganga Singh, made a desert bloom!
At a time when a large part of India faces a debilitating agrarian crisis, spilling over into violent protests, the story of how a land was transformed because of a canal and planning, is worth celebrating. The transformation of Hanumangarh and Sri Ganganagar region is thanks to the magic of the Ganga Canal, also called the ‘Gang Canal’, built by the visionary ruler of Bikaner, Maharaja Ganga Singh who brought made a desert bloom!
Though once a core part of the Harappan Civilisation, and strewn with famed settlements like Kalibangan, Pilibangan, Bhatner and Rangmahal, the drying up of the Saraswati river marked an end. The desert crept in and by the medieval period, this region was a barren wilderness known as ‘Jangladesh’ or ‘wild country’. It had nomads eking out a living here and was famous for its horrific cycles of drought.
The kingdom of Bikaner reached its greatest extent following the conquest of Hanumangarh in 1805.
It was only in the late 15th century, that Rao Bika, the eldest son of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur, following a dispute with his father, arrived here and established Bikaner in 1488 CE. For centuries, his descendants kept expanding the kingdom, which reached its greatest extent following the conquest of Hanumangarh from the Bhatti rulers in 1805. However, by mid-19th century, Bikaner, once a thriving trade hub for caravans from Central Asia which made their way between Multan and Delhi, was now just a feudal backwater under the suzerainty of the British empire.
This was to change starting 1888 when a young 18 year old Maharaja Ganga Singh took on the reigns of the kingdom. Within a year of his accession, the young Maharaja had to face one of the worst famines in the history of Bikaner, the Great Famine of 1889-90 which is wiped out almost 20% of Bikaner’s population. The horrific loss of life and devastation due to the famine left a deep imprint on the ruler. He resolved to take measures that would ensure this would never be repeated.
The Great Famine of 1889-90 wiped out almost 20% of Bikaner’s population.
The only way out, he reckoned was to bring in waters from the Punjab rivers to the desert of Bikaner. The idea of extending irrigation networks into the arid areas of Bikaner from the Sutlej river in Punjab, had originally been mooted in 1885 by Col Dyas, an engineer in Punjab, but the project had failed to take off, due to the opposition of the Punjab Government and the Princely State of Bahawalpur, now in present day Pakistan.
In 1903, Maharaja Ganga Singh, decided to revive the project and hired a British expert A.W.E. Stanley as a Chief Engineer to study its viability. This was followed by almost 17 years of lobbying with the British Government. The contributions of the Bikaner army in World War I and Maharaja Ganga Singh’s prestige, as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, tipped the scales in Bikaner’s favour.
A 157 mile long railway line was planned to complement the canal.
A tripartite agreement was signed between the governments of Punjab, Bahawalpur and Bikaner on 4th September 1920 and soon the work began. The plan was for a massive project of an 80 mile long concrete canal on the Sutlej river, which would begin at Ferozepur in Punjab, and through network of feeder canals and distributaries, cover an area of 600 miles irrigating more than 65,000 acres of land. To complement the canal system, a 157 mile long railway line was planned that would connect various Canal colonies that were to be built.
The estimated cost of the project was Rs 5.5 crores in the 1920s and this was entirely financed by Bikaner state through loans from the Marwari merchant diaspora based in Calcutta and Bombay. The Maharaja himself laid the foundation stone of the project at Ferozepur on 5th December 1925 and within a short span of two years the project was completed. The Ganga Canal was finally opened on 26th October 1927 by Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India. It was a lavish ceremony in which Maharaja Ganga Singh drove the ‘Hal’ or the plough into the ground , while his wife the Maharani, sowed read pearls in the furrows.
The foundation was laid in 1925 with Maharaja driving the plough into the ground.
Very soon the change in the landscape was obvious. M M Sapat, a state official would later recall ‘ As far as the eye could see there were green fields where the desert had been, and what a matter of pride it was, not only for him (Maharaja Ganga Singh) but for all of us who went there and saw it’. The Maharaja also invited a number of farmers from Punjab to settle in the area and in 1931, a new well planned township named Sri Ganganagar was laid out.
Soon after, more layers of infrastructure were added. An extensive railway network was completed and schools, hospitals, colleges and airfields were also built across the state. But, the Maharaja had even bigger plans and wanted to irrigate other parts of Bikaner, through the Bhakra Dam project. A proposal to build the Bhakra Dam in Punjab and its network of canals had been mooted as early as 1919, but despite the Maharaja’s best efforts, the project did not bear fruit in his lifetime.
Today, the Sri Ganganagar and Hanumangarh districts are referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Rajasthan.
Maharaja Ganga Singh passed away due to throat cancer on 2nd February 1943 at Devi Bhawan, his palace at Napean Sea Road in Bombay, It is said that one of the last things that he said, was ‘Bring me the Bhakra Dam file’. The dam was only completed in 1963.
Interesting, the Ganga Canal had an important impact in 1947, during the Partition of India. Originally, the Ferozepur town in Punjab, where the canal’s head works lay had been assigned to Pakistan by the Boundary Commission. However, Maharaja Ganga Singh’s son and successor Maharaja Sadul Singh told Lord Mountbatten in no uncertain terms that without Ferozepur, deprived of its waters, Bikaner would have no choice but to join Pakistan. The joint pressure put by Sadul Singh as well as Jawaharlal Nehru worked, meant that Ferozepur was assigned to India at the last minute.
Today, the Sri Ganganagar and Hanumangarh districts are referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Rajasthan. The canal and the prosperity of the region are a testimony to the great Maharaja, who brought the waters to his people and transformed their lives.
A lesson on what can be done.
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